We’d planned to spend Christmas with friends in Hanoi and I was dreading it – but not for the reasons you might think.
With there being exactly two weeks between my birthday (17th December) and New Year’s Eve, and Christmas being smack bang in the middle, the festive period has always been extra special for me. I love the run up to Christmas – planning, buying and wrapping gifts, decorating the tree, going to Christmas Markets and, of course, mulled wine. But, more than that, Christmas is about family. Decorating the tree, in my immediate family, is always done on my birthday and is a main event for us. We have special tree-decorating music and it always gets fun and a bit silly. Even Remus (my dog) joins in! We celebrate on Christmas Eve too, not Christmas Day, due to our German heritage. I’ve never opened Christmas presents in daylight… I’ve also never spent Christmas away from my family, and this was why I wasn’t crazy excited about it.
Where to stay
When we arrived in Hanoi we checked into the Hanoi Zesty Hotel. This was very basic but cost us just £12 per night, including breakfast, which was very cheap for Hanoi. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful, and this really made our stay much more pleasant.
For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we stayed at the more expensive Eclipse Legend Hotel. While this was definitely more luxurious than the Hanoi Zesty, it was also nearly triple the price at £30 per night. The hotel was nice, but I wouldn’t say it was anything special. Our “honeymoon suite” was smaller than our friends’ double room, and had no view or balcony at all so felt a bit dingy. The water was lukewarm (not hot), and water pressure was not great. There also wasn’t a huge variety at breakfast, not like the amazing hotel we’d stayed in during our earlier trip to Hoi An. The staff were lovely though, and this was the hotel’s saving grace.
One of the really good things about the crazy traffic in Hanoi? You’ll be so wedged in on your scooter that you couldn’t fall off if you tried! Okay so, jokes aside, riding in Hanoi was a bit mental and I’m not sure I’d ever do it again. We did do an incredible day trip on a scooter to the Perfume Pagoda though, which you can read about here.
Otherwise, walking is the easiest and best way to get around Hanoi. Everything is fairly close to the centre and the area around the lake is pedestrianised at weekends too.
We did try out a Cyclo on Christmas Day, which was actually a really fun way to see a little more of the city. Remember to haggle on pricing!
Things to do
Visit the infamous Hoa Lo Prison – otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton, as it was referred to by US POWs. It’s well laid-out and won’t take you long to explore, the entrance fee is just 30,000 VND, and everything has been translated into English too. It provides an insight into the treatment of Vietnamese POWs by the French colonialists, then the Americans by the Vietnamese – although this may not be the most objective information you’ll find, it’s well worth a visit.
Take a walk around the lake. Hanoi is centred around its lovely lake, to the point that the roads around it are even closed at weekends to make way for the huge amounts of pedestrian visitors. It’s a lovely place to walk around and grab a coffee or a drink in the afternoon and we spent a lot of time just wandering around the lake and taking in a bit of the culture and the city.
Go shopping! There are so many shops and stalls selling souvenirs around the lake, and in Hanoi’s Old Town district too. We needed to find two gifts for the Secret Santa we’d organised so, after browsing the shops and coming up short, we headed to Dong Xuan Market to find what we needed. There are lots of fake branded products around, but also some really nice traditional souvenirs to take home – that’s definitely one of the things I hate the most about traveling, not being able to take some amazing souvenirs home! The market was a lot less touristy than some I’ve been to and it was really nice to be able to wander around and explore at our own pace, without being hassled by vendors every five seconds. There wasn’t a huge variety, but it was what we needed.
Check out the infamous Bia Corner. We’d already heard a lot about it from our friends, and it didn’t disappoint. Admittedly, I don’t drink beer due to a nasty, nasty hangover in Turkey a few years ago, but there are plenty of other drinks available if it’s not your thing. Bia Hoi, however, is what people congregate here for – the fresh beer that Hanoi is famous for. The taste and quality varies from night to night, but one thing stays the same… it’ll mess you up the next day!
Rent a scooter and ride around the city. Along with some friends, we hired a scooter from our hotel for £4 and set off to see some of the city’s major sights. We rode around the West Lake to the beautiful Tran Cuoc Pagoda. It was pretty busy, but still a very relaxing place and the red-tiered pagoda was very impressive. The area around Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum was also worth visiting, there are lots of well-manicured grounds to explore as well as the mausoleum itself. We didn’t fancy stealing a look at Uncle Ho himself, so we admired the outside and the grounds instead. Last stop was the Phu Tay Ho Temple, which provided incredible views across the lake to the city skyline.
Go to see a Water Puppet Show. We’d been told to see a Water Puppet Show by my cousin, who visited Hanoi last year. As it cost just 100,000 VND (around £3.50), this was a steal. While the singing is in Vietnamese and we couldn’t understand it, the stories are simple and the music is really entertaining. We were sat quite far back as we arrived late, so get to the theatre early if you want the best view. We bought our ticket at the door of the Thang Long Theatre just ten minutes before the show started.
Where to eat
Lantern Lounge – A more upmarket restaurant than what we’re used to as backpackers, with a price tag to match. This was our Christmas Day treat to ourselves and we weren’t disappointed. Good food, attentive staff and a chilled-out atmosphere, not to mention the many, many lovely lanterns! Grab a seat upstairs on the terrace for a good view, and try the spring rolls.
Banh My 25 – A nice little spot near to Bia Corner serving amazing banh my and a few other dishes. Basic but a nice atmosphere, friendly staff, and super cheap.
Yogen Fruz – The perfect frozen yoghurt for the heat of Hanoi. The variety of flavours and toppings meant it took me forever to decide on an order! I had raspberry fro-yo with fresh mango and white choc-chips. It was delicious, if a little pricey for Hanoi.
Banh My Hana – This amazing stall on a side-street away from the hustle and bustle served what was, without a doubt, the best banh my I had in Vietnam. Just typing this makes me insanely hungry. The man making our banh my was very friendly and we came back here twice as it was also super cheap, 25,000 VND for a sandwich – that’s around 85p!
S&L’s Diner – Another place which was over our backpackers’ budget but worth it. The American owner and his staff are so friendly and attentive. The mac and cheese was a delicious taste of the West and their burgers were amazing too. We really liked the atmosphere and decor.
La Place – Right next to the cathedral so has great ambience and amazing views from the upstairs terrace. Both western and Vietnamese dishes were really tasty here. Slightly overpriced due to the location though, and staff weren’t the most attentive!